UPDATE October 11, 2013: Rebecca Welsh Helps Orphans and At-Risk Kids Worldwide, PEOPLE
By Stacey Gualandi/March 17, 2011
“What has happened in Japan is absolutely devastating. It reminds me of the 2004 tsunami that dramatically rose the number of orphans where we work in India. At that time we had to quickly make space for children in need of shelter and love…Just one child losing their parents to something like this is an absolute tragedy.”—Rebecca
Rebecca Welsh knows first-hand the overwhelming desperation following a destructive tsumani. Seven years ago, she created The HALO Foundation–Helping Art Liberate Orphans. A HALO-supported orphanage in India provided a home for children left parentless after the 2004 tsunami.
This 31-year-old former Taekwondo World Champion is a guardian angel for many young people. HALO continues to offer support and hope worldwide through determination, donations, and drawings!
The artwork these young boys and girls create has sold at auctions and in turn helps to fund food, shelter, education, water, and the clothes on their back. HALO now operates in six countries, supporting 11 orphanages and counting.
A mutual friend recently introduced me to Rebecca while she was exploring a possible expansion to the West Coast. And considering I am a student of tae-bo (taikwondo-light), I was very interested to see how a world champion in martial arts became a champion for young children in need…
EYE: What is a former model-turned-taekwondo champ doing completely changing course and starting an organization like HALO?
REBECCA: I had an interest in orphans from a young age. I remember doing a paper on Asia when I was in second grade, and I read about what an orphan was. At that age I could not believe that existed. No matter what I did from that point on, I always had a sort of burden for children in need.
EYE: Did your previous careers prepare you for this adventure?
REBECCA: Everything in my life has lead me to this point. I have no doubt that what I did before HALO gave me the confidence to do my job every day.
“It was thrilling to see the kids in the U.S. realize they could make a huge difference with a little sacrifice.”
EYE: What compelled you to start HALO? What was the ultimate moment where it clicked for you?
REBECCA: Right out of college I volunteered with a medical organization in Honduras for six months. It was during that time I first met a street child. It was actually a pack of about 11 kids who traveled around the streets begging for food and water, looking out for each other. I was shocked.
I grew up a six hour flight from this in paradise where I had parents who cared for me and not a worry in the world. That realization has stayed with me since that moment. Once I returned to the U.S., I went back into teaching martial arts.
I had a group of students whom I would tell stories to about the children I met during my travels. They wanted to do something to help out so they put together a fundraiser and raised $5,000.
“That was the light bulb moment for me. It was thrilling to see the kids in the U.S. realize they could make a huge difference with a little sacrifice. Their next event raised over $40,000. The rest was history.”
EYE: What kind of feedback do you get? Did people tell you you were crazy to start something like this?
REBECCA: I did get a lot of negative feedback at the start of HALO. Some people didn’t understand why I would want to do this, or how I would be able to travel to “dangerous” places but I was used to that. It was the same thing I had heard when I told others I wanted to be World Champion in Taekwondo.
I think people just didn’t want me to be disappointed when I lost. Hearing that made me want it more, and train harder than anyone else I had ever heard of.
EYE: Explain how art actually liberates the orphans whom you work with.
REBECCA: Art plays a very important role in the healing of the children we support. It is a chance for them to express themselves in a free environment and it opens up a line of communication between the orphanage director and the child.
EYE: Do you have children? How important is HALO to you?
REBECCA: I don’t have children. I feel like I have hundreds of kids around the world though. Someday I would like to have children, and I am very interested in adoption.
HALO is my purpose. Knowing we are able to give a better life to a child who is deeply suffering inside and out makes my soul smile.
EYE: What are the limitations? Would you be able to help in Japan?
REBECCA: We just don’t have unlimited funds. It takes a lot of time, research, and relationships to start a program. Over 100 children are on the streets waiting to be supported by HALO right now. Our plans are to sustain the programs we currently support while bringing those children in when we have the funding to do so.
EYE: Tell us a particular moment when your emotions took over? Is there a time when you feel overwhelmed?
REBECCA: I remember a day during my last trip to Africa I had been visiting our homes and learning all about the lives of the children and their extremely difficult life stories. After a few days of that I get a little emotionally worn out. I try to focus on the fact that they now are in a loving place.
On this particular trip I had seen so many of our existing kids and then heard the stories of kids who were candidates for support that I felt numb. Toward the end of the day, our orphanage director asked me if I would meet two boys from the community who had just lost their mother. I told him no. We didn’t have the funding. We didn’t have the space. The answer was no.
He asked again and said, “Rebecca this really is a desperate case.” I said no. And once more, he asked. I broke down and said, “OK, I will go but we can’t afford to take one more in, especially not two.” We got to their hut in the slums of Timau.
“He explained that he and his brother had nowhere to go. My heart broke.”
There were two young boys with bloodshot eyes standing by the door outside of their hut that was locked with a little padlock. Kelvin, the older of the two, had a string tied around his neck with a key hanging from it. He put the key in the lock and turned it. We entered his shack which was the size of a closet and saw a small bed on one side where his mother had died two days earlier.
He explained that he and his brother Alvin had nowhere to go. My heart broke. It literally broke. Tears were streaming down my face, and I asked Stephen when we could take them in.
“I was happy they would be given shelter and a loving home…”
I left that home for the U.S. without knowing if I would ever see them face-to-face again.
About a week later I received an email from Stephen saying they had tested negative for TB and HIV. They were admitted to the home. My heart slowly started to feel better. I was happy they would be given shelter and a loving home but sad that they were mourning the death of their mother.
So yes, it can get emotional.
EYE: That’s an amazing story. How rewarding has this been for you?
REBECCA: Visiting the homes is always such a rewarding feeling. We have been able to watch the children grow from being on the streets to becoming young men and women with a strong sense of self worth, love and peace.
EYE: Describe a typical day-in-the-life of you and the children in the orphanages you visit.
REBECCA: I spend a lot of time thinking about the vision of HALO. How can we get better, what is the best for the children we support, how can we grow, how do we best communicate with our donors and volunteers?
The children basically have the same type of schedule as the children in America. They get up, eat, go to school, come home, and have a few activities before they go to bed. The only difference is they are with 25 brothers and sisters. It is actually a lot of fun.
EYE: You just visited Mexico and Africa. Describe the success of those trips.
REBECCA: My trip to Mexico was actually a bit discouraging. Their funding for basic needs has recently been cut. HALO has supported their education for years, and this is the first time they have been in need of additional help.
I visited six programs in Africa that we need to support, and I will be looking at our possibilities for additional projects.
“I hope we can just reach as many children as we possibly can.”
EYE: What do you hope your legacy will be? Ultimately what do you hope to accomplish?
REBECCA: I hope we can just reach as many children as we possibly can. Hopefully that’s thousands and one by one bring them in from desperation. If we think of it in terms like that, it can make sense and we can stay away from being overwhelmed.
EYE: Can you still kick everyone’s butt in taekwondo?
REBECCA: I am not in the same shape as I was when I was training for World Champion, but I will say I never feel threatened when traveling to the homes.
EYE: Rebecca, that fearlessness has obviously gotten you to this point and will continue to change thousands of young children’s lives. I salute your efforts and wish you continued success. I’ll be here in Los Angeles to help when you break ground!